Located within day-tripping distance from the capital Reykjavik lies Iceland’s most popular excursion, The Golden Circle. I first visited these sights back in 1998 at the beginning of my summer long Europe trip, and even wrote this post about that visit. Back then, I did the trip with the well-reputed company Reykjavik Excursions. I enjoyed the trip, but, as the pictures show, the weather on that day was overcast and rainy. I did two things differently on this trip- I rented a car so I could do the itinerary at my own pace, and I did it under picturesque blue skies, which meant that I had to jumble my four day Iceland itinerary at the last minute based on forecasts. This meant landing early in the morning, picking up my rental car, and heading (jet-legged) straight toward the Golden Circle. As tired as I was, the decision was a good one, as the day was perfect for taking pictures.
This volcanic crater, which was formed between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago, is known for it’s red volcanic rock and aquamarine colored waters. I wasn’t able to see either of these features on this visit, since the slopes of the crater were covered in snow and the sun was high is the sky, which meant the pool’s color was masked by it’s reflection.
The crater is 180 feet deep and 270 feet long, and is filled at the level of the water table, not by rainfall.
Skálholt is one of the most important historical sites on the island. It was here, in 1056 AD, that the first school in Iceland was established. For many years, first under Catholicism, the Protestantism after the reformation, Skálholt was the largest settlement in Iceland.
Today, there are excavations of the sites are under way to uncover much of the site’s history.
The focal point of the modern site is the Skálholt Cathedral. It’s larger than most of the Icelandic churches. Finished in 1963, the cathedral recieved gifts from the churches of all the other Scandinavian countries, including the beautiful stained glass windows, a gift from Iceland’s former colonial administrator, Denmark.
This geothermally active valley contains Geysir, the first of it’s kind mentioned in a printed source, and it’s name has since been given to the feature itself. The valley is more than just geysers, it also contains fumaroles, hot springs and mud pots.
While Geysir has the more famous name, Strokkur is the most reliable feature in the valley. While Geysir only erupts 4-5 times a day on average, Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes, sending a frothy stream of heated water up to 40 feet in the air.
Gullfoss is a two-tiered waterfall that us one of Iceland’s most recognizable features. It’s name in English means ‘Golden Falls’. It is formed where the fast rushing Hvítá river flows southward, first over the step-like feature, than drops dramatically into a much deeper gorge.
For many years, despite it’s status as a popular tourist attraction and a sacred site to Icelanders, the waterfall was targeted ad a possible site for a huge electricity plant that would provide power to much of the island. A combination of slow economic times and a preservation drive put an end to that and now it is a protected area.
The most important historical site in the country, Þingvellir also contains geologic wonders and the country’s largest natural lake. The country’s first assembly, the Alþingi, was established here during the summer of 930 AD, and is considered the founding of the nation of Iceland.
The site also encompasses faults lines where the European and North American tectonic plates come together. The geologic anomaly is visible to visitors and some of the hiking path even lead through the gaps created by the shifting plates.
Þingvellir feels like a place of reverence, especially when reading about those early days of the government, a democratic one founded over 400 years before Columbus would even step foot on the shores of the new world.
The Golden Circle is a can’t miss for visitor’s to Iceland. As much as I enjoyed The Blue Lagoon, and love Reykjavik- If visitors have only one day in Iceland on a stop over, I would recommend the sights of the Golden Circle.